ANALYSIS | Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Covid-19 and the trajectory of the Ramaphosa presidency

President Cyril Ramaphosa is currently walking a tightrope as he, together with Cabinet fast track regulations as the country is set to move to alert Level 3 on Monday. (GCIS)
President Cyril Ramaphosa is currently walking a tightrope as he, together with Cabinet fast track regulations as the country is set to move to alert Level 3 on Monday. (GCIS)

Ramaphosa started on a high, while the virus was on the low. Now that the virus is on steady upward trajectory, he seems to be going in the opposite direction.

On 24 May President Cyril Ramaphosa ended his Covid-19 address to the nation on a confusing note. “It is now in your hands,” he said, quoting from Nelson Mandela. 

He left it open to interpretations, of which two immediately come to mind. One interpretation is this.  

Given the fact that the speech was announcing his decision to move the country from Alert Level 4 to Alert Level 3, following much public debate and push from various interest groups to ease the hard lockdown, "leaving it in your hands" could mean the president is challenging the nation to deal with whatever consequences will result from the easing.  

Another interpretation could be that he made a mistake by not qualifying the quote.

The "you" should be understood as "we, the nation".

In other words, "it’s in our hands". In this sense, he wasn't disengaging.  

This is because in the preceding sentence, he said: "In meeting this grave challenge, we will move ahead as one people, united in action, and determined that we will surely overcome."

And he introduced the quote by saying: "We are reminded of Madiba's wise words…"

But, whatever, the interpretation one prefers, one thing is clear from the May 24 address: the president looked slightly deflated and less optimistic than before.  

In previous addresses he wrapped up with the necessary oomph.

It was certainly not the Ramaphosa who took to the podium, in full military gear, to address throngs of soldiers he had deployed to enforce the lockdown across the country.  

Significantly, he urged them to nudge citizens to comply and not to use "skop en donner" tactics.

That was Ramaphosa, the Covid-19 "war president" who rallied the nation to defeat the "invisible enemy".  

  • March 15: "It is true that we are facing a grave emergency. But if we act together, if we act now, and if we act decisively, we will overcome it."  
  • March 23: "It is these attributes of our national character [resilience and solidarity] that won us our democracy and it is what will ensure our victory over this pandemic."
  • March 24: In his televised address, he exhorted the nation "to be courageous, to be patient, and above all too show compassion. Let us never despair. For we are a nation at one, and we will surely prevail".  
  • March 30: "If we work together, if we keep to the path we know we have to take, we will beat this disease. I have no doubt that we shall overcome."
  • April 9: "Much is being asked of you, far more than should ever be asked. But we know that this is a matter of survival, and we dare not fail. We shall recover. We shall overcome."  
  • April 21: "I have faith in the strength and resilience of ordinary South Africans, who have proven time and time again - throughout our history - that they can rise to the challenge. We shall recover. We shall overcome. We shall prosper." 
  • May 13 Amid increasingly sharp differences within and outside government how best to respond further to the Covid-19, he once again invoked Mandela who had called for rising above differences in the anti-HIV/AIDS fight. "History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so now," he said.  

In an apparent attempt to boost the national mood - and perhaps that of his own too - he told South Africans what US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had relayed to Americans: "The state of this nation is good. The heart of this nation is sound. The spirit of this nation is strong. The faith of this nation is eternal."

It is understandable that a president would want to keep the spirit of the nation as high as possible through uplifting messaging in the middle of a disaster.

However, there are question marks about whether Roosevelt's America can in some way be compared with Ramaphosa's South Africa.  

In his Newsletter of 23 March, he had gone further back in American history and lifted from another US president - Abraham Lincoln - who had said he believed people would act correctly if given correct information.

Said Lincoln: "If given the truth, [the people] can be depended upon to meet any national crisis".

It turns out, not all the truth is told to citizens about government's Covid-19 strategies. 

But after all the optimism, the exhortation of the nation to do the right thing, Ramaphosa on May 24 ended with the Madiba quote: "I leave it in your hands."  

Assuming the president was indeed deflated, as I believe he was based on observing his posture since the declaration of a national disaster, the question is: What could have been the reason?  

A few could sum up the situation.  

As he was sending all the right messages to the nation sounding optimistic about containing the spread of the virus, the numbers of infection and deaths kept rising.

At the same time a number of South Africans were also increasingly demanding to return to normal life.  

The internal workings of government proved to be messy.

When he declared the state of national disaster, the president said the aim was to allow for speedy, effective and integrated approach to mount a response to the disaster.

But some inconsistencies in messaging from within government betrayed the lack of an integrated approach at various stages of the national disaster.  

As the commander-in-chief, he had made it clear that "skop en donner" tactics would not be used by the armed forces.

Yet, a few people have died at the hands security forces, including Collins Khosa, whose case made prominent headlines thanks to the excellent work of lawyers like Thembeka Ngcukaitobi who took up the matter.  

In the Khosa judgment, the high court criticised the lack of sufficient instructions to security forces.

"No proper guidelines have as yet been issued in my view to inform even SANDF members, let alone civilians how security forces may enforce the lockdown, including when and to which extent they may use force," ruled Judge Hans Fabricius.  

This must have been disappointing for Ramaphosa who had made time to address soldiers and gave instructions - which his own security cluster of ministers failed to translate to comprehensible guidelines.  

The lack of consistency in government seems debilitating.

The Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane took a decision not to provide Covid-19 relief funding to white-owned tourism business - a decision based on poor political leadership by Ramaphosa's appointees.  

Critically, though, Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza decided not to follow the racial criteria in allocating Covid-19 funding relief to farmers. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni most likely would have cheered at this decision while other Cabinet colleagues probably scorned.  

Ramaphosa has kept his promise to consult various sectors as part of government's strategy to determine sectoral responses to the pandemic.

However, the consultations seem to have resulted in certain strong lobby groups winning concessions for their own selfish interests.  

The decision by Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula to accede to the taxi industry's request to increase loading to 70 percent was the first sign of the cracks of the lockdown starting to appear during the Level 5 lockdown.  

Then came the irrationality about jogging and the hot food sales controversy.

But perhaps what takes the cake in the scale of irrationality was the Trade and Industry Minister's list of what constituted winter wear, which he obtained from the retailers and published it as a regulation for the whole nation to comply with.  

The confusion on cigarette sales, of which Ramaphosa is not blameless, is the clearest indication yet that the government has no proper mechanism to process conflicting interests from lobby groups while at the same time keeping a steely eye on the prize: the defeat of Covid-19.  

The decision to allow churches to resume is raising too many questions than answers about government’s sincerity in restricting gatherings. Why shouldn't group exercises be allowed in a church-like room if participants follow all the health protocols?

What about gyms and restaurants who are prepared to host 50 people at atime with protocols observed? And libraries?  

This decision to allow churches, and resumption of sales of alcoholic beverages at Alert Level 3 from June 1, require strong enforcement mechanisms.  

It is an open secret that, there was no effective lockdown even at Alert Level 5 in many parts of the country especially in townships, rural areas and informal settlements.

Enforcement is likely to be even more challenging at Alert Level 3 raising the spectre of upward facing graphs of infections and deaths. 

Ramaphosa has repeatedly said that the government would differentiate between different metros, regions and province.

He has listed hotspots.  

Yet, a decision has been taken to move the whole country to Level 3.

It's difficult to understand how Mpumalanga, with 0.5 percent infections and no deaths, compared to Western Cape with 65 percent infection and the highest death rate could be placed at the same alert level. 

Ramaphosa started on a high, while the virus was on the low. Now that the virus is on steady upward trajectory, he seems to be going in the opposite direction.

If his morale has to be represented in graphic terms, there is a risk that as it might meet the Covid-19 infection graph that is moving upward.

It is a crisis point he must avoid. 

- Mkhabela is a former parliamentary and political correspondent for the Sunday Times and editor of the Sowetan. He works as an analyst in the private sector.

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